Today we know Ernest Beaux first and foremost as the creator of Chanel No. 5, but he was also responsible for Bois des Îles, Cuir de Russie, No. 22, and many other early Chanel perfumes. His style is elegant and graceful, but with a strong character. Soir de Paris, a fragrance he created for Bourjois, doesn’t just skip from one note to another; it shimmers, revealing in one moment a peppery citrus and green leaves, and in another a velvety rose and wood shavings. As it turns out, Beaux was not only a great perfumer; he was also a good writer, and his candid observations remain relevant today. In partnership with the Osmothèque, I offer you an excerpt from Memories of a perfumer (Souvenirs d’un parfumeur), a 1946 magazine article by Ernest Beaux published in Industrie de la Parfumerie.
The article gives a glimpse into what Beaux considered to be the greatest perfumes of his time and his thoughts on the art of perfumery in general. “If our thoughts are but fantasies, such fantasy finds, thanks to the talent of the perfumer, a possibility of fulfillment,” he writes, and I cannot agree more.
The article comes from the archives of the Osmothèque, a French non-profit institution whose mission is to preserve fragrances in their original formulations. The current regulations make it impossible for Chanel to offer No.5 as Beaux intended it to be, but the Osmothèque features it in its collection, which is open to the public. You can also discover there the fragrance masterpieces Beaux mentions in the article: Houbigant Cœur de Jeannette, Houbigant Fougère Royale, Houbigant Le Parfum Idéal, Houbigant Quelques Fleurs, Piver Le Trèfle Incarnat, Roger & Gallet Vera Violetta, Guerlain Jicky, Guerlain Après l’Ondée, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, Coty La Rose Jacqueminot, Coty L’Origan, Caron Le Narcisse Noir, Lanvin Scandal, and Lanvin Arpège.
Translated into English by Will Inrig.
“At what period did I create it [Chanel No. 5]? In exactly 1920. Upon my return from the war. I had been led on campaign to the northern part of Europe beyond the Arctic Circle at the time of the midnight sun, when the lakes and rivers release a perfume of extreme freshness. I retained that note and replicated it, not without some difficulty, as the first aldehydes I could find were unstable and of an irregular production.
Why that designation? Mademoiselle Chanel, who had a fashion house greatly in vogue, requested of me several perfumes. I went to present her with my creations – two series: 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. From these she chose several, including one labelled Number 5, and when I asked “What name should be given to it?”, Mademoiselle Chanel replied: “I present my dress collection on the 5th of May, the fifth month of the year; we shall thus leave the number with which it is labelled and this number 5 shall bring it good luck.”
I must recognise that she was in no way mistaken. That new note enjoyed and continues to enjoy a very marked success; few perfumes have been imitated and counterfeited as has been Chanel No. 5…
Obviously, I had made other perfumes before this No. 5, as my first creation dates from 1907, when in Moscow I had recently been named Member of the Board and Technical Director of the Société Rallet. In 1912 my creation Le Bouquet Napoléon, honoring the centenary of the battle of Battle of Borodino, proved an incredible success.
After five years on campaign, I created in 1919-1920, in addition to No. 5 of which I have spoken, No. 22 and a whole series of different perfumes. In 1922, my friend, Mr Charabot, asked me to represent him in Paris, but in 1924, Messrs. Paul and Pierre Wertheimer decided I would return to the creation of perfumes and have since released among others: Gardénia, Bois des Îles, Cuir de Russie at Chanel and Soir de Paris and Kobako at Bourjois.
It is thanks to an atmosphere of total freedom and an understanding of the role that falls to the creator that I have been able to realize my ideas.
Throughout my career numerous perfumes left upon me a marked impression. In my early days these were Bayley’s Ess. Bouquet, Lubin’s Chypre, Piver’s Le Trèfle Incarnat, Roger & Gallet’s Vera Violetta. The greatest perfumer of his time, Mr Parquet, created Le Parfum Idéal, Fougère Royale and Cœur de Jeannette, all admirable perfumes, and later Mr Bienaimé composed Quelques Fleurs with its new note of lilac that proved a considerable success for the house of Houbigant.
I see the Guerlain family as having contributed to the glory of French Perfumery with Jicky, Après l’Ondée, L’Heure Bleue and other creations of great class, as well as Coty with La Rose Jacqueminot and L’Origan, and I am notably reminded of the unprecedented craze for these two perfumes in France and abroad.
Mr Daltroff (Parfumerie Caron) brought us an interesting note with Narcisse Noir – and we soon saw appear creations of exquisite taste like Lanvin’s Scandal and Arpège.
I stop myself there, not because I have nothing to say of other perfumes, among which there exist a great number of good and excellent ones, but because I am lacking in space and still wish to speak of the perfumer and his art.
Because for me Perfumery is an art and the true perfumer must be an artist.
As the musician must first learn his notes and his solfège, as the painter must first study drawing and colour, so must the perfumer know raw materials. He must analyse, training himself to dissect scents and forging a perfect recollection of all substances already smelled. He retains a certain number of these substances and thus builds his palette.
The same as a painter maintains his palette though he changes style, a perfumer may distinguish himself precisely by the assortment of materials he prefers to employ. The perfumer creates for himself ‘standard accords’ that serve him in specific cases and facilitate his work. He can then compose a perfume; for this it is essential that he has an idea, that he knows what he wants to make and that all his efforts tend towards the goal that he sets for himself.
If our thoughts are but fantasies, such fantasy finds, thanks to the talent of the perfumer, a possibility of fulfillment; these thoughts in any case are necessarily influenced by the environment in which we live, by our readings and by our favorite artists. These are for me the French poets and writers, and also the poetry of Pushkin, the works of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, the music of Beethoven, Debussy, Borodin, Mussorgsky. The Imperial Theatre with its Ballet and the Moscow Art Theatre, the paintings of the French School and the great Russian masters, Serov, Levitan, Repin and many others, and above all the artistic milieu that I so enjoyed frequenting.”
Beaux, Ernest. “Souvenirs d’un parfumeur.” Industrie de la Parfumerie 1.7 Oct. 1946: 228-231. Print. The original French version.
Translated from French by Will Inrig. November 12, 2013. COPYRIGHT The Osmothèque 2013.
Image: Ernest Beaux, via the Osmothèque; vintage ads of Chanel No 5 (1947) and Soir de Paris (1965).
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